This column was written by Brian Crandall, who runs “Ithacating in Cornell Heights.”
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There are three certainties to an Ithaca winter. It will be cold. It will be cloudy. It will be snowy. While the amount of those three things might vary season-to-season, they always make an appearance at some point (and perhaps all too frequently).
There’s a couple different ways to cope. One is by going to Florida to escape it (nudge nudge County Visitors’ Bureau), often followed by a trek back up north once sweltering summer humidity washes over the Sunshine State. Another is to hunker down with quilts, coats, and enough hot chocolate to fill a kiddie pool. The third is to go out with a big grin and bear it.
Ithacans are a fairly resilient bunch, no one really wants to trapped inside from November to March, and the community is willing to embrace its chilly climate – for instance, Chili Fest, because it’s hot, delicious, and if one’s mouth is blazing with the intensity of a dozen habanero peppers, they aren’t going to notice the cold as much.
In the 1980s, residents were a little more direct in their begrudging love-hate relationship with winter – a February celebration called the “Ithaca Slush Festival”. (Thanks to former mayor John Gutenberger for pointing this one out to us.)
The Slush Festival was filled with all the things that make winter in Ithaca winter. There was a contest for the rustiest car, with the winner receiving 80 pounds of salt as a prize (the winner of the first Slush Fest turned down their prize). Snowplows paraded down the streets of downtown Ithaca. Supermarket freezer departments competed against each other with shopping cart drill teams. A simulated TV weatherperson’s stage, where aspiring broadcast meteorologists could have themselves videotaped while making forecasts. Even some Cornell students came down from the hill to join in the fun, with signs saying “Friends, Romans, lend me your earmuffs.”
A 1986 New York Times article noted that if the weather was bad that year, that instead of a skydiver landing in a pool of slush, the mayor would throw on some wading boots and jump in from the third step of a stepladder. According to Gutenberger, “The mayor at the time made a complete fool of himself (but was great for votes) by jumping off a ladder into a bucket of slush on the Commons and broke his wrist.” It’s probably a good thing YouTube wasn’t around in 1986.
In an amusing twist, when the first Slush Festival was first held in late February 1985, it was in the 50s and 60s F for most of the week prior, so there was no slush to work with. For the following year, local officials collected slush in mayonnaise jars ahead of time, just in case.
In spite (or perhaps because) of the warmth the first year, the Slush Festival drew 5,000 attendees. But after those first couple of years, it appears the Slush Festival dried up – a 2009 article advertising a newer Slush Fest noted that it been over a decade since the last festival. Does that qualify as climate change?